I'm an opinionated asshole. That goes without saying. Why the hell would I have a crappy blog, if I wasn't? I know what I like and I know what I don't like. And as an opinionated asshole, I prefer to think that I can present some logical argument to illustrate how my tastes in music, movies, books and TV are objectively superior. It isn't just a matter of opinion, but a fact. (See just about every post on this blog for an example.) The problem is, these annoying little arguments never really work over the long term. There are always contradicting examples that shoot down any carefully constructed case.
For example, it is an easily assumed notion that over the last decade American Idol has caused the lowest common denominator of main stream musical sensibilities in this country to plummet. That the show is a living, breathing manifestation of cross promotional greed devouring what little remained of genuine expression in the pop music world. That it has destroyed any remnants of honest culture that survived MTV's assault on Alternative Music in the late 90's. Now I don't really believe any of that. Not completely anyway. But part of me really likes indulging these kinds of thoughts. It makes me feel like I'm the savvy connoisseur of the unknown and the overlooked. It makes me feel superior to the main stream trends that have always alienated me. But there's a problem with all of this nonsense. (All you music snobs, listen up.)
It's all bullshit.
Over the last few months, American Idol has totally deflated my notion of what canned, cheesy pop music is, due to this fact: Crystal Bowersox is one hell of a musician. Part of my snobby ego cringed when I typed that. Go ahead. Mock me. Tell me that I have the cultural discernment of the other 13 year old girls that actually watch that show. Fine. I don't care.
She's damn good. She's legit. And that realization totally screws any of my American Idol hatred right in the ear.
Now, I really don't pretend to be a music critic. Well I guess I do, but I am very aware that I am only pretending. I have zero formal training and I can't read music or tune a guitar to save my life. But I know what I like. And I like this.* I also like this.** And this.***
A lot goes into singing a great cover to a classic song. It's tough to pull off. You are expressing yourself by reciting someone else's words and music. It can't just be a technically proficient exercise of hitting the right notes in the correct order. There must be passion and truth behind your words. Otherwise it's just empty gymnastics that will fail to resonate with anyone looking for something real. That's the difference between Joe Cocker's cover of "A Little Help From My Friends" (a truly sublime Beatles cover) and this thing.
Since you are a lazy bastard and probably didn't bother to click the links of Crystal's songs a few paragraphs back, I'm going to embed one to make it impossible to ignore. Check out this cover of the Soul classic by The Impressions.
She's good, isn't she? It's okay to drop your pretensions and admit it. You like an American Idol contestant. Welcome to the confused and bewildered club.
But I'm going to come down from my pedestal. It's long overdue. American Idol is far from the faceless villain of all things good and true that I portrayed it to be earlier. Like most people not in Junior High, I seldom watch the show but I'm certainly aware of it. It's been such a dominant cultural force over the last decade, it's impossible to avoid. As such, I have come to expect some variation of the previously referenced David Archuleta to be the featured star. A likable, nice kid with a charming smile and decent pitch that plays dress-up on national television and pretends to be a rock star. Or a soul singer, or a crooner or a country singer or whatever that week's theme happens to be. It's what we expect and it's what we almost always get. And there's not a damn thing wrong with enjoying that.
You see, American Idol is the Applebee's of pop music. Now don't misread that as a bad thing. Remember, I'm off the pedestal. Applebee's has become a bit of a punchline of prefabricated, strip mall culture. But just because it's mass produced (as opposed to that cute, little hole in the wall cafe you love) that doesn't make it bad. Sure there is an anti consumer impulse that affects our snootier sensibilities that tempts us to look down our nose at the Olive Garden or Chili's. But when have you ever not enjoyed your Awesome Blossom? Or your Tour of Italy? You're telling me that your Raspberry Lemonade and endless fries at Red Robbin didn't hit the spot? Don't get me wrong. I'll take a meal at Mazza or Chanon Thai (for you Salt Lakers) over Red Lobster any day of the week. It's better food, better atmosphere and a better experience. But that doesn't mean I don't love those cheesy biscuits they give away by the barrelful at Red Lobster. Those things are like crack. You think you're too good for them? You're not. And I don't think there's a thing wrong with acknowledging that. I can embrace my love of Mimi's French Onion Soup and still be an independent man of cultural integrity that rises above the manufactured milieu of the American suburb and appreciates genuine . . . hell. I can't even finish that sentence without wanting to punch myself in my conceited balls. Look. Just because something is not authentic, (and despite it "rustic" aesthetic, I assure you, Mimi's is the opposite of authentic) doesn't mean it isn't worth enjoying. There's no compromise of some imagined integrity involved. You're just eating food that tastes good.
So it is with American Idol. Watching the show and enjoying the performances doesn't negate your credibility as "real" music fan. Nor is it some kitschy joke to be enjoyed because it's terrible. It's perfectly average. And sometimes, perfectly average hits the spot.
But that misses my original point. Crystal Bowersox is more than just a cheesy biscuit from Red Lobster. She's a musician that is able to articulate personal truth through classic, well known songs. Not an easy thing to pull off. (I sited three or four examples but every song I've heard her sing has been really good.) But more than that, she can really write an excellent song. This is the only original song of hers I am familiar with, but it's quite good. I don't know if the child abuse is autobiographical or if she's just telling a story. Either way, it feels true.
Farmer's Daughter by Crystal Bowersox
If I heard her singing that in a coffee shop, I would spend ten bucks on the self burned CD that was sitting on the folding table by the stage. In the world of bit torrent, that's about as much devotion I can muster for any musician. (I can't help it. It's just too easy to rip them off.)
Now, I'm not going to lose my head over this realization. Quite frankly, it took American Idol nine years and thousands of contestants to find one genuine artist. So I'm going to continue dismissing Simon Cowell and his man boobs, the black guy who sounds like a white guy trying to sound like a black guy (Yo, Dog! Yo, yo.), the sort of hot chick (eh, not really) and Dory as the game show hosts that they are.
But I'm also going to put Crystal's music on my Ipod and enjoy it.
* She over sings it a bit, but she's just pandering to the judges and audience.
** This beats the hell out of Tracey Chapman's original.
*** Janis never sang Frank. But if she had, it would sound a lot like this.